On Finding New Screenplay Structures for Independent Films

Filmmaker magazine featured a guest column from Jennine Lanouette who has taught screenwriting and lectured on story structure and script analysis for over 20 years. I found this article interesting in large part because Jennine ends up pretty much where I have about screenplay structure:

It often seems to me that the independent film community is not entirely comfortable talking about screenwriting. Or perhaps more specifically story structure. This is not surprising considering a Hollywood Screenwriting Advice Industry has grown up over the past 20 years pushing a mono-minded model of story structure that a creative innovator could find stifling.

The truth is that the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, Syd Field Paradigm, or whatever is the structure template du jour, are all just variations on what any decent Screenwriting Fundamentals class would teach about our historically derived model of drama, generically referred to as Three-Act Structure. But the Screenwriting Industrial Complex does not deliver it to us as simply a beginning point that a creative person can noodle around with and push in new directions. Rather, the screenwriting advice givers drive home the message: “Stray from this model at your (commercial) peril!”

Independent film, however, exists, by definition, for the very purpose of straying from conventional models. This may explain the collective covering of the ears to shut out all that story structure noise. As a longtime teacher of screenwriting always looking to engage with others on this topic, I have to cover my ears sometimes, too. But something is lost when the only alternative to the noise is to avoid the issue altogether.

There’s no avoiding Three-Act Structure. It is the One-Point Perspective of screenwriting. Just as in drawing, you have two points on a horizon line and then a third vanishing point to create a sense of space, in filmed drama, you have a beginning, middle and end to orient the viewer in time.

However, within that three-part structure, there are infinite possibilities for what can be achieved. This is the Advanced Screenwriting class, where a healthy respect for the model handed down to us by centuries of dramatic innovators is combined with an acknowledgement that artistic evolution depends on continually seeking new ways to apply the old models. Hollywood used to be open to cultivating, or perhaps simply tolerating, such ambitious endeavors. But, considering that today’s Hollywood has sunk into a comic-book-franchise/based-on-a-true-story rut at the expense of original adult drama, I would like to suggest that the evolution of the art form is now the sole responsibility of independent filmmakers.

Indeed, there have been some beautiful examples of screenwriting innovation recently: the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost are two of my favorites (which I’ve written about on my website). Ironically, it was just as the Screenwriting Advice Industry was taking hold 20 years ago that Quentin Tarantino provided indie counter programming when he turned three-act structure on its head in Pulp Fiction (which I’ve often analyzed in my lecture classes). Using basic story structure principles, he created a structural system all his own. This is at the core of getting beyond the mono-minded model.

After years of studying story structure, here’s what I have concluded: It actually doesn’t matter which structural model you use as long as you have some kind of underlying structural system to your drama [emphasis added].

Longtime readers of the blog will recognize this common refrain: There is no right way to write a script. Every writer is different. Every story is different. Jennine takes the thing one step further:

You start with Three Act Structure and go from there. When you apply your structural system consistently throughout your story, the viewer will unconsciously derive security in knowing there is an underlying structure at work [emphasis added].

I think that’s right. When you go into the story and discover its own unique narrative form, as long as you nail the construction and are consistent throughout, a script reader will pick up on that and “derive security” in your intimate knowledge of the story and its structure.

You can go here to read the rest of Jennine’s column which focuses on independent storytelling as she posits an interesting “meditation on character, action and theme.” Plus you can learn more at her site.

Wrangling your story

Some call it breaking a story. Others cracking a story. I prefer wrangling a story. Whatever you call it, you have to do it… figure out the story. What goes where. Who does what to whom. And for most writers, the ideal time to do that work is before you type FADE IN.

What we call prep-writing.

Of the many things that can go wrong with a screenplay, perhaps the most frequent contributor to a project’s crash-and-burn is the writer not spending enough time in prep wrangling their story.

Conversely if you do spend sufficient time in the prep-writing phase of the process, you significantly increase the chances you’ll not only finish your script, but produce a draft that will be much closer to realizing your goals.

When Tom Benedek and I launched Screenwriting Master Class nearly four years ago, the very first class we offered was Prep: From Concept To Outline. I created the workshop precisely because I believe so strongly in the value of prep-writing combined with the fact there is nothing out there remotely close to the approach I had in mind.

Prep: From Concept To Outline is a 6-week online workshop in which you start with your basic idea and your story’s Protagonist, then through a series of weekly writing exercises, you develop and build your story’s structure. Not just the plot, but also what’s going on in the emotional and psychological world of your story universe, the foundation of Character Based Screenwriting.

Character work. Brainstorming. Plotting. Subplots. Connecting the dots. Mapping your narrative. In the end, you have a detailed outline providing you a foundation upon which you can craft a first draft.

What’s more, you can adopt this approach — and adapt it to your own unique skills — for every future writing project.

I will be leading the next session of Prep beginning June 9. So if you have a great idea for a movie and want to learn a professional approach to wrangle it, sign up now for Prep: From Concept To Outline.

If you have any questions about the workshop or what we offer online through SMC, please post in comments or email me.

Amazing things happen in these workshops, so I look forward to the opportunity to dig into your story with you!

Go Into The Story Week In Review: May 26-June 1, 2014

Links to the week’s most notable posts:

12 Invaluable Tips for First-Time Filmmakers

2014 Black List Screenwriters Lab submission period now open

30 Days of Screenplays: Week 1 scripts

30 Days of Screenplays, Day 1: The Way Way Back

Bill Murray: Trickster Extraordinaire

Classic 90s Movie: Being John Malkovich

Classic 90s Movie: Chungking Express

Classic 90s Movie: The Shawshank Redemption

Classic 90s Movie: There’s Something About Mary

Classic 90s Movie: Wag the Dog

Daily Dialogue Theme for Next Week: Flirting

Edgar Wright – How to Do Visual Comedy

GITS Interview: Brad Riddell, screenwriter, film school professor

GITS Interview: Tasia Valenza, actor and voice-over artist

Great Character: Celine (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight)

Interview (Video): Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Interview (Video): Quentin Tarantino

Interview (Written): Simon Kingerg

Interview (Written): Linda Woolverton

Movie Analysis (Parts 1-7): Gravity

On Writing: Mark Twain

Pixar reveals plot details to its next movie Inside Out

Prisoners: Movie Analysis

Saturday Hot Links

Screenwriting 101: Tze Chun

Screenwriting News (May 26-June 1, 2014)

Script To Screen: 12 Years a Slave

Thirty Classic 90s Movies

Tuileries: A short film by Joel and Ethan Coen

Update: Black List Live! stage reading

Writing and the Creative Life: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek”

2014 Black List Screenwriters Lab submission period now open

From the Black List:

In late August, the Black List will invite six promising feature film writers identified by the Black List script evaluation service to an all-expense paid intensive writers workshop from September 29 to October 4 in downtown Las Vegas. Go Into The Story blogger Scott Myers is already confirmed as a mentor. Four additional mentors will be announced in the coming months. (The mentors for the 2013 Lab were Billy Ray, Kiwi Smith, Brian Koppelman, and Jenny Lumet.)

Hosted by the Las Vegas Downtown Project (recently profiled in the New York Times), the Labs are part of a broader initiative, Writing Downtown, focused on building a writing community in the newly revitalized city.

Each writer will workshop one screenplay through a peer advisory work and one-on-one sessions with each screenwriting mentor. The week will also include nightly special industry guests and tours of and the Las Vegas Downtown Project.
On August 1, fifteen writers will be invited, based on the strength of their scripts as evaluated by the Black List screenplay evaluation service, to submit a professional resume and a one-page personal statement, due on August 8.

From those personal statements, Lab screenwriting mentors and the Black List will select six writers to invite to Las Vegas.

Evaluations initiated before midnight July 1 will be guaranteed consideration.

Accommodations (private bedrooms in three bedroom apartments shared with fellow participants), coach travel from a major US airport, food, and reasonable incidentals will be covered for all participants.

Writers who meet the below criteria can opt their scripts into consideration for the Lab selection process during uploading or via the writer dashboard portion of the website:

  1. You are the sole and exclusive author of the screenplay submitted for consideration. Writing teams are not eligible.
  2. You have not received more than $50K in aggregate to date as compensation for film or television writing work.
  3. If selected on August 1 as one of the fifteen writers to submit a resume and personal statement for additional consideration, you will deliver that personal statement by noon PST on August 8
  4. If selected for participation in the Lab program, you are available to be flown from a major US airport to Las Vegas, NV in order to participate in the Lab program from September 29 – October 4, 2014.

Having participated in the inaugural Black List Screenwriters Lab last year, I can attest to how great it was. You can go here to read about the 2013 event and see some comments by the screenwriters selected to participate.

It’s a great opportunity, one definitely worthy checking out.